Huey Pierce Newton was the child of black migrants who had left the Jim Crow South in the early 1950s in search of a better life in California. He grew up in Oakland, in a hardworking, disciplined, religious household, in which education and dignity were stressed. While attending Oakland City College in the early 1960s, Newton, like so many black Americans, had become disillusioned by the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, frustrated by its limitations and failures, and determined to find new solutions to the problems of day-to-day racism. Instead of studying the Christian philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., he chose to read the works of more radical, nationalist leaders such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and Malcolm X.
While in college, Newton struck up a friendship with another student, Bobby Seale. Seale attended Oakland's Merritt College where he studied engineering and politics. Like Newton, he had become especially interested in black liberation struggles in Africa, and espoused the black power philosophy of Malcolm X. After hearing the militant black leader speak, he decided he would become a soldier in the struggle against inequality.15
Together in 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale conceived of a new civil rights organization, one quite different from those led by nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. As a response to police brutality and economic oppression in their communities, they created the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a "revolutionary" group that would demand more political and economic power for their people. In their "Ten-Point Program," they detailed the goals of the Party:
1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.
4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.
8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.16
Newton and Seale were especially concerned about racism rampant in law enforcement. They sought to "neutralize the police force" which they viewed as the worst perpetrator of crimes against black people. Utilizing California law, which in 1966 protected a citizen's right to carry an unconcealed loaded weapon, Black Panthers took up arms, followed police officers, and monitored their activity. By proving to the Oakland community that police were vulnerable to intimidation, the Panthers hoped to help demystify white society and empower black people to challenge the racial injustices inherent in it.
Newton, the self-appointed Party Chairman, believed, too, that the organization should lead black communities by example. Each Party member was to participate in outreach programs, including providing free breakfast for school children, tutoring adults in English and math, and offering assistance to the elderly and the disabled. In addition, Panthers were to talk with citizens about solutions to illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness, and fear. Much like Bob Moses and the Freedom Summer volunteers, the Black Panthers sought to instill courage in people living under economic and social oppression and to motivate them to seek equality. But unlike earlier nonviolent movements, the Panthers encouraged people to use any means necessary to fight racial discrimination, including a call to "Off The Pigs!" ("Pig" was the Panthers' derogatory term for the police.)
These strategies led J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, to declare the Black Panther Party the number one threat to the security of the United States. Federal and state authorities under the supervision of Hoover advised police officers to "beware of the Panthers" who were "armed, aggressive, and extremely violent."17 By committing themselves to violent confrontation, Panther men risked their safety, security, and freedom. Women, too, put their lives on the line, and pregnant Panthers, like Deborah Johnson, Elaine Brown, and Assata Shakur who managed to pair motherhood with revolution, were doubly vulnerable.
With media coverage of shoot-outs, murders, and court trials involving the Black Panther Party, the nation learned of the organization. For a growing number of people, black and white, the panther became the most recognized symbol of "Black Power," and Huey Newton the most recognized face of armed civil rights struggles. Some were frightened by the image of young, African-Americans dressed all in dark clothing, toting shotguns and rifles, and declaring that, "The revolution has come!"
Others were inspired. "The Panthers were 'baaaaaad,'" Assata Shakur remembers. "The sheer audacity of walking onto the California Senate floor with rifles, demanding that Black people have the right to bear arms and the right to self-defense, made me sit back and take a long look at them."18 By the mid 1970s, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense had grown immensely popular—particularly among black inner-city youths—and had spread across the nation, establishing chapters in several major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, and Boston.
This rapid expansion, however, contributed to the downfall of the organization. According to Huey Newton, new members, many young, energetic, and angry, sought to emulate the image of the Panther—wield a gun and raise a fist—before understanding the deeper, long-term goals of the Party. New recruits failed to become involved in community programs, showed little interest in registering voters or distributing the Party newspaper, and failed to attend required classes on economics and political strategies. Leaders lost control, and without the kind of solid structure that maintained organizations like the NAACP and SNCC, the Black Panther Party become wholly vulnerable to infighting, corruption, and efforts by the FBI to destroy the organization. By the mid-1970s, the Party had collapsed.
Despite its many troubles, the group left behind a legacy of direct action and black pride, which would influence a new generation of urban youths.